February 13, 2014, is the official release date for my 33 1/3 book on Aphex Twin's 1994 album Selected Ambient Works Volume II, available at Amazon (including Kindle) and via your local bookstore. • F.A.Q.Key Tags: #saw2for33third, #sound-art, #classical, #juntoElsewhere: Twitter, SoundCloud, Instagram

Listening to art.
Playing with audio.
Sounding out technology.
Composing in code.

tag: gadget

SOUND RESEARCH LOG: On Gyrosurveillance

That fly on the wall could be the vibration of your cellphone:

“In the age of surveillance paranoia, most smartphone users know better than to give a random app or website permission to use their device’s microphone. But researchers have found there’s another, little-considered sensor in modern phones that can also listen in on their conversations. And it doesn’t even need to ask.”

From an article by Andy Greenberg at wired.com.

This entry cross-posted from the Disquiet linkblog project sound.tumblr.com.

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SOUND RESEARCH LOG: The “Metallic Accent” of the Vocoder

The New Yorker posted a short, 11-minute mini-documentary about the Vocoder. Laurie Anderson praises its corporate aesthetic. Frank Gentges discusses its military history. Dave Tompkins talks about Bell Labs technical innovations (noting its “metallic accent”), among other things. There’s music from Kraftwerk, Afrika Bambaataa, and Newcleus, whose Cozmo D is interviewed; somewhat dispirated, he says with a half shrug, “Some of the dopest shit we have came out of military technology.”

The documentary is the second in the newyorker.com‘s Object of Interest series.

This entry cross-posted from the Disquiet linkblog project sound.tumblr.com.

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The Dance Music of Failing Digital Memory Systems

A downloadable 2011 performance by Valentina Vuksic

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As solid state drives (SSD) rapidly put old physical digital memory into the trash bin of history, it’s worthwhile to reflect on the sounds intrinsic to them. While today SSD is widely appreciated for its near-silent operation, the primary sound source being the fan that is occasionally required to cool a computer system, in its day the physical disc drive was itself seen as a respite from the devices that had preceded it: the click of the shuffling CD player, the surface noise of vinyl, the playback mechanism of cassette tapes. Valentina Vuksic has made much of the inherent idiosyncrasies of the hard drive, the galloping clicks and fizzy transgressions, turning those signals of function and malfunction into sound for its own sake, a post-digital chamber music of delicate tensions. She’s employed the word Harddisko as an umbrella name for many of these projects.

It’s been two years since Sonic Circuits, the Washington, DC–based experimental music promoter, has updated its SoundCloud page, but there’s still plenty of engrossing listening there. A track by Vuksic dates, as well, from two years back, but since it currently shows just 331 listens, it’s safe to say it can benefit from some additional coverage. The performance is from a September 26, 2011, Sonic Circuits show at the Pyramid Atlantic Art Center in Silver Spring, Maryland. At nearly half an hour it is an engaging and challenging listen, the dance music of failed digital memory systems.

And here’s video of one of her Harddisko installations, from the 2007 Dutch Electronic Art Festival, including interview segments in which she describes her artistic and musical activity:

More on Vuksic’s Harddisko at harddisko.ch. More from Sonic Circuits at dc-soniccircuits.org, twitter.com/soniccircuits, and soniccircuits.tumblr.com.

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A Noob’s Tale

Fiddling with my first modular synth rack

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I’m just getting started fiddling with modular synthesis. Everything I know up to this point is pure book-learning. I’m like the Prioress in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. She has no firsthand experience of the culture (“And Frenssh she spak ful faire and fetisly, / After the scole of Stratford-atte-Bowe, / For Frenssh of Parys was to hir unknowe”).

Here’s a snapshot (well, a ModularGrid simulacrum) of my rack, which I’m barely a week into starting to assemble. The stuff on the right of the rack I now have set up, while the stuff on the left is currently being nestled in bubble wrap and shipped to me. Mine is at http://www.modulargrid.net/e/racks/view/96941; if there’s nothing on the left of that rack when you read this, it’s because everything has arrived. (The photo up top I originally posted to my instagram.com/dsqt account.)

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Since it’s possible there are noobs even noobier than me, I’ll explain that ModularGrid.net lets you construct virtual sets of modules. I’m working in the Eurorack format, which is more compact than its predecessors. Many Eurorack modules are loving recreations of items from early in the development of audio synthesis. ModularGrid describes itself as follows: “a database for modular synthesizers with an integrated planner where people gather information and sketch out their modulars.” It’s a very helpful service. Every individual module links through to information about the module, and you can view racks that employ a given module, or share general characteristics with yours. Some helpful people assited me in getting my ideas together for an initial rack by posting their own rough starter sketches in ModularGrid. Speaking of noobs, whatever you read here that isn’t self-explanatory can be easily digested thanks to the numerous resources on the web about Eurorack modules in particular and audio synthesis in general. That’s how I’ve been learning. The discussions at muffwiggler.com/forum have been useful.

I have this equipment all in a Tiptop Audio Happy Ending Kit with the “z-ears,” which put it at a slight angle. And I have some colorful 6″ and 12″ cords.

The rack currently doesn’t have outputs or a mixer because I’m just putting it through my Behringer 802 mixer.

In advance of the arrival of the VCO, the EKO, and the Gozinta, I’ve mostly been (1) reading up and (2) doing some basic filtering of sounds that I feed into the Polivoks and then influence with input from the A-145. The sound quality should improve significantly when the Gozinta gets here. Mostly I’ve been using my Buddha Machines and my Gristleism as sound sources, but I’ll be using notes from my ukulele soon enough.

Once the VCO is here I’ll spend a lot of time on (re)learning synthesis fundamentals, mainly how the VCO and the LFO interact. (I spent way too much time wondering which VCO to get, and then waiting to hear back from non-responsive Craigslist people. I also missed out on some Muffwiggler.com forum sale items because I misunderstood the 100-post limit. I thought it was a 100-post requirement to participate in the marketplace. But I later learned that it’s a 100-post requirement to post items for sale. Anyone can buy. So, I lost on on a Dixie II. So be it.)

My main goal in this modular exploration is to learn how the tools work. But I know the best way to learn is to have a project, so I want to work on hazy ambient-quality sounds and some basic beat-making. I imagine I may add a step sequencer of some sort soon, but I’ll probably use Loopy on my iPad for awhile. If I add too many modules at the start, I’ll just get lost. Also, as inexpensive as the core components are individually, they do add up. Fortunately there is a large marketplace of secondhand modules.

I’d like to get a case with a proper cover and handle. I dig the waterproof Synthrotek ones, though I’m not informed about what to use that narrow 1U tile section for.

Anyhow, that’s where I’m at. If you’re already deep in modular/Eurorack activity and anything here looks like it’s gonna blow up, or anything looks like it’s missing, I’d appreciate being told so.

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Is There Such a Thing as a Sonic QR Code?

One needn't watch the new Spider-Man movie for a possible answer.

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There are at least two things that Sony Pictures marketing executives did not consider when preparing a cross-promotion between its new Spider-Man film and the song-identification app Shazam. I first read about this promotion this morning on io9.com, because pretty much the first thing I read every morning is Morning Spoilers on io9.com. The film in question, The Amazing Spider-Man 2, opens this Friday, May 2, in the United States. Expecting extended discussion about Peter Parker’s doomed romance with Gwen Stacy or the rise of his frenemy Harry Osbourne to lead the high-tech firm founded by his father, instead there was news of an intriguing little digital-audio phenomenon.

The Sony-Shazam promotion involves viewers of the Spider-Man movie waiting until the end credits, during which the Alicia Keys song “It’s On Again” is heard. Viewers can then use the Shazam app to identify the song. Doing so brings up a special opportunity to add, for free, photos that hint at members of the Sinister Six — villain characters from Sony’s rapidly expanding Spider-Man franchise — to their personal photo galleries. (It should be noted that the Keys song is itself a sort of cross-promotion. It’s full credit is: Alicia Keys feat. Kendrick Lamar – “It’s On Again.”)

The first of these things that Sony Pictures may not have considered is that Shazam shares a name with a superhero from a rival comics publisher, DC. Would it have been too difficult to sign up, instead, with Soundhound, or MusixMatch, or the elegantly named Sound Search for Google Play, among other song-identification services? Perhaps none of this matters. Sony is already engaged in a cold war with other studios among whom the Marvel universe of characters is subdivided. A second-tier, if beloved, character from another universe entirely means nothing when there are already two Quicksilvers running around in your own. For reference, below is an uncharacteristically stern Shazam, drawn by Jeff Smith (best known for his work on Bone):

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In any case, the second and more pressing matter is that one needn’t stay until the end credits of the new Spider-Man film to activate the Shazam code with the Alicia Keys song. One needn’t even see the Spider-Man film, let alone wait for it to open in a theater near you. Right now, two full days before the film’s release in the United States, you can pull up the Alicia Keys video on YouTube, and the Shazam app on your phone will recognize that as the correct song, and your phone will, indeed, then provide you with the prized photos. In fact, at this point you don’t even need to do that, since the photos have already proliferated around the Internet. (See them at comingsoon.net and at the above io9.com link.)

But an interesting question arises, which is: How different would the Alicia Keys song played during the end credits have to be from the original version of the song for only the credits rendition to be recognized by Shazam as the correct one to cough up the Sinister Six photos? More to the point, can a specific version of a song function as the sonic equivalent of a QR code. QR codes are those square descendents of zebra codes, such as the one shown below. The “QR” stands for “quick response.” They can contain information such as a URL, which when activated by a phone’s camera can direct the phone’s browser to a particular web page. This QR code links, only semi-helpfully, to the web page on which this article originally appeared:

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Of course, from a procedural standpoint, Sony could have gotten around this alternate-version approach by having the song only be available in the credits, but that would have cut into sales of the soundtrack album — which would either have to lack the song entirely, or have its release delayed until several weeks after the film’s debut.

The recipes of these different song-identification apps, such as Shazam and its arch enemy Soundhound, are closely guarded secrets. Enough information is provided to allow for developer-level discussion, but ultimately the apps’ success (both in terms of successful-identification statistics and user adoption) depend on the how-to being at least semi-obscured. But there is quite a bit of information out there, including a 2003 academic paper by Shazam co-founder Avery Li-Chun Wang outlining the company’s approach at the time (PDF), which I found thanks to a October 2009 article by Farhad Manjoo on Slate.com. The summary at the opening of the paper reads as follows:

We have developed and commercially deployed a flexible audio search engine. The algorithm is noise and distortion resistant, computationally efficient, and massively scalable, capable of quickly identifying a short segment of music captured through a cellphone microphone in the presence of foreground voices and other dominant noise, and through voice codec compression, out of a database of over a million tracks. The algorithm uses a combinatorially hashed time-frequency constellation analysis of the audio, yielding unusual properties such as transparency, in which multiple tracks mixed together may each be identified. Furthermore, for applications such as radio monitoring, search times on the order of a few milliseconds per query are attained, even on a massive music database.

The gist of it, as summarized in handy charts like the one up top, appears to be that an entire song is not necessary for identification purposes, that only key segments — “higher energy content,” he calls it — are required. At least in part, this allows for songs to be recognizable above the din of everyday life: “The peaks in each time-frequency locality are also chosen according amplitude, with the justification that the highest amplitude peaks are most likely to survive the distortions listed above.” It may also explain why much of my listening, which being ambient in nature can easily be described as “low energy content,” is often not recognized by Shazam or any other such software. As a side note, this gets at how the human ear listens differently than a microphone. The human ear can listen through a complex noise and locate a a particular subset, such as a conversation, or a phone ringing, or a song for that matter.

Now, of course, there’s a difference between the unique attributes of emerging technologies and the desired results of marketing initiatives. Arguably all that Sony wanted to come out of its Shazam cross-promotion was to get word out about Spider-Man, and to buy some affinity for the Sinister Six with a particular breed of fan, and to that end it has certainly succeeded. Perhaps it also hoped to gain a little tech cred in the process, even if that cred is more window dressing than truly innovative at a technological level.

Still, the idea of a song as a true QR code lingers. Perhaps Harry Osbourne and Peter Parker could team up and develop a functional spec.

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